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Hurricane Havoc

Oct. 1, 2008
Gulf Coast distributors and reps have been through this drill before. So when Hurricanes Gustav and Ike hit last month, they were ready to shift into storm-recovery mode.

It was an all-too-familiar scenario for electrical distributors and independent reps in storm-ravaged areas — work 24/7 to supply area homes and businesses with the supplies they need to restore power while struggling to make their own businesses fully operational. But with the help of generator power, stockpiles of emergency supplies, reps and manufacturers who worked overtime to keep deliveries flowing and long hours by dedicated employees, distributors in the Gulf Coast were slowly but surely recovering from last month's storms. In this article you will learn how distributors and reps survived Hurricane Gustav and Hurricane Ike, also what products you should have on hand in your own businesses so you can keep it operational during and after a storm and to provide the necessary disaster-recovery supplies and services for your customers.

Hurricane Gustav

Hurricane Gustav made landfall Sept. 1 near Cocodrie, La., about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans. The path of the hurricane offered New Orleans a reprieve, but the Baton Rouge, La., area suffered severe damage.

The region's top power company, Entergy Corp., said in its 95-year history only Hurricane Katrina knocked out power for more of its customers than Hurricane Gustav. At the storm's peak, 850,000 Entergy customers, primarily in Louisiana and Mississippi, had lost electrical service. Entergy reported on its website that restoration was complete in Mississippi and Arkansas but that problems remained in Baton Rouge, Louisiana's state capital, and other cities. According to a Sept. 9 article in The New York Times, nearly 40 percent of Baton Rouge's power was out.

“Fortunately, we suffered minimal damage due to our pre-storm prep,” said Parker Stewart, New Orleans area manager for Crawford Electric Supply Co. (CESCO), a unit of Sonepar USA. “We boarded windows and doors, moved material in doors and unplugged office machines.”

As a result, CESCO's one location in New Orleans had relatively little damage. High winds did blow a sign off the building, damage a satellite dish and cause windows to leak, resulting in water damage on the interior walls.

Seventeen of CESCO's 25 employees at its New Orleans branch evacuated the weekend before the storm to northern Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Stewart said all 25 employees returned to work and that power at their homes had been restored by Sept. 7. He called the employees' return to work a “real tribute to the dedication of our team.”

Like CESCO, Albuquerque, N.M.-based Summit Electric Supply was able to avoid major storm damage because of storm preparation. Four of Summit Electric Supply's branches were forced to evacuate — New Orleans, Gonzales (outside of Baton Rouge), Broussard and a branch in Beaumont, Texas.

“Out of those, absolutely nothing happened in Beaumont, so that was a non-factor,” said Sheila Hernandez, vice president, marketing, Summit Electric Supply.

At presstime, Hernandez said the company's Broussard office, which is in the Lafayette area, was up on regular power, but the other two locations were still running on generators.

“Within less than 24 hours after the storm, we accounted for all of our people,” she said. “Nobody is hurt and no one lost their home. Some employees have property damage. We did have people who took damage to their homes — trees falling on roofs, roofs blowing off.”

Graybar Electric Co. evacuated three of its four branches in the Graybar Dallas District. The district has branches in Beaumont, Texas, and in New Orleans (Harahan), Lake Charles and Baton Rouge, La. None of these branches sustained damage from Hurricane Gustav, and all Graybar employees were safe. Of the four locations, Baton Rouge was the only city that wasn't evacuated.

“It ended up being hit the hardest, even though it's approximately 75 miles from the coastal area. High winds took down substations and transmission lines,” said Dori Moore, director of operations, Graybar Dallas District.

On Sept. 2, a mandatory evacuation order forced Graybar to close its New Orleans and Lake Charles branches. Graybar's Beaumont branch was operating with a skeleton crew due to the evacuation. Graybar-Baton Rouge was forced to close because the city was completely without power or phone service.

Calls to Graybar-Baton Rouge were routed to Graybar-Houston. Graybar-Gulfport, Miss., also was officially closed Sept. 2 because of the hurricane, but some employees came into work to take care of customers that needed supplies such as portable cable, cord caps, circuit breakers, fuses and generator hook-ups.

Graybar's branch in Jackson, Miss., was not impacted by Hurricane Gustav, but Libby Lang, manager of customer service for the Jackson location, said the company's branch delivered wire to the U.S. Coast Guard, which needed to hook up generators in the New Orleans area.

Graybar's Beaumont and Lake Charles branches were operating with a full staff on Sept. 3. Although Graybar's New Orleans branch was still under evacuation orders, 20 Graybar employees with “Level 2” permits were allowed back into the city to staff the branch. Level 2 clearance is granted to businesses that support the power restoration efforts of utilities and electrical contractors. On Sept. 4, the company's New Orleans and Baton Rouge branches were up and running on small generators.

While power remained out for approximately 80 percent of Baton Rouge on Sept. 8, Graybar-Baton Rouge was able to fully open for business thanks to power from a flat-bed generator rented from a Graybar Lake Charles customer, says Moore. On Sept. 9, she said 50 percent of the power in Baton Rouge had been restored.

Independent rep Jean Paul de la Houssaye, principal of C&D Agency in Covington, La., about 30 miles north of New Orleans, said he, his family and his home-based rep agency were without power for several days.

“We're on a road that looks like it had a little twister,” he said. “It knocked out the light poles, utility poles and transformers. It's 1.7 miles from the major highway.”

De la Houssaye said his bigger concern was flooding from two nearby rivers. “We're between two rivers, so one of the biggest scares we had was the water coming up. The water came up to about seven feet to seven-and-a-half feet in front of my house. We had about three more feet to go. That was the worst. We had to get all the furniture up off the ground floor and put it on the second floor.”

Hurricane ike

With customers in some parts of Louisiana still without power from Hurricane Gustav, Hurricane Ike was tracking toward the Texas coast and forced many Gulf Coast residents to evacuate their homes.

Electrical distributors who spoke with Electrical Marketing several days after Hurricane Ike devastated the Gulf Coast region said most of their branches were able to open within a few days after the storm hit on Sept. 13.

Texas distributors located near the Gulf Coast told EM that although they had suffered minimal damage to their facilities and they believed all of their employees were safe, getting fuel for trucks was sometimes a challenge because so many gas stations were without power. All electrical distributors EM talked with had lost electricity and had to power their facilities with generators immediately following the storm.

Entergy, the utility that serves the area east of Houston, said Sept. 25 that it had restored power to all of its 395,000 customers. CenterPoint, which serves Houston and Galveston, Texas, had restored power to more than 2 million of its 2.26 million customers. At press time, CenterPoint said it expected to have power restored to all of its customers within two to three weeks.

Hurricane Ike is being blamed for the deaths of more than 50 people. The 110 mph winds, heavy rain and massive flooding from Hurricane Ike left Galveston in ruins.

Thirteen of Elliott Electric Supply's stores were without power or data after the storm hit, said Bill Elliott, the company's president. Most of the locations were in the Houston area, but several were in the East Texas region closer to the Gulf of Mexico, he said. Three of Elliott Electric's stores in Texas — in La Marque (10 minutes outside of Galveston), Pearland and Galena Park — were without power and operating on generators until the weekend of Sept. 20-21.

“There is minor damage to buildings, and our RDC in Houston and headquarters in Nacogdoches are in good shape,” said Elliott. Several bay doors blew off of Elliott Electric Supply's RDC, which is on the northwest side of Houston, and a bay door blew in at Elliott Electric's Tomball location. “Other than that, our buildings all look pretty good,” said Greg Fitzgerald, Houston area manager for Elliott Electric Supply.

The biggest challenge facing Elliott Electric in the Houston area in the days immediately following the storm was getting fuel, said Fitzgerald. “The gas stations were backed up,” he said. “It was pretty hard to just get fuel. If you don't have power at these gas stations, you can't gas up.” As a result, Fitzgerald said those people living in areas without power traveled to the areas where there was fuel to gas up, contributing to long lines at gas stations.

That had an impact on Elliott Electric's fleet, says Fitzgerald, especially immediately following the storm. “We had to be a little more strategic about how we made our deliveries. We had a night crew at our RDC location finding fuel stations at night and filling up. So that worked out pretty well for us. But we still had to be pretty careful about how we made deliveries. We didn't want to have one of our trucks run out of diesel and not be able to get the guy back to the store.”

Elliott Electric Supply began offering 24/7 service from its regional distribution center in Houston Sept. 22 and planned to continue the 24/7 operation until Oct. 3, said Fitzgerald.

At Crawford Electric Supply Co. (CESCO), Houston, Craig Levering, the company's president, said CESCO's branch in Houston did not suffer any structural damage or water damage.

“The hurricane pulled the 15-foot lighted sign off the front of our building and blew it across the street. Other than that, we did not experience any further damage,” he said. Levering said all CESCO employees had been accounted for and that permanent power was restored at CESCO Sept. 22.

All of Graybar Electric Co.'s locations in Hurricane Ike's path were alright, but utility power was knocked out at Graybar's Freeport and Beaumont, Texas, locations, said Graybar Dallas District Vice President Randy Harwood. Both branches ran on generator power. Beaumont was up and running the day after the storm, and Freeport was up several days later.

“Our Dallas District works with a contractor that brings in and sets up generators for us,” he said. “It was critical that we get our computers and wire equipment up and running as quickly as possible to meet our customers' needs. Our Houston branch has its own generator and was up and running for business immediately.”

In Albuquerque, N.M., Summit Electric Supply was doing its part to help hurricane victims. Summit Electric Supply President and CEO Victor R. Jury Jr. said the company would donate $50,000 to the American Red Cross for Hurricane Ike relief efforts. Summit's four locations in the hurricane-affected Texas cities of Beaumont, Clute, La Porte and Houston escaped major damage and all 116 of the company's associates escaped injury.

“Thanks to some solid planning and preparation by our leaders and teams in Beaumont, Clute, Houston and La Porte, all locations are open for business and serving customers,” Jury said. “We have taken steps to ensure business continuity and to have the post-storm materials on hand that will be needed to get the affected communities up and running as soon as possible.”

All four Summit locations were open and operating on Sept. 15, including phones and delivery trucks. Three of the service centers were using generators. Other Summit locations in theimmediate area and in the region helped and supported the four branches that were affected. Summit associates began emergency preparations as early as Sept. 9, ahead of the storm. Most evacuated the area Sept. 12, as officials had directed, but returned late Sept. 14 or the morning of Sept. 15.

Summit had an operations strategy that worked well, the company said. Some materials were flown to the company's service center in Austin and trucked into Houston, which became a “hub” for distributing products and supplies to Clute, La Porte and Beaumont. Other materials were trucked in “relay” from Summit Electric's Corpus Christi service center to Clute.

Summit's Clute location was the only place in the county to buy generator plugs for four days, the company said. People traveled up to 50 miles to buy the generator plugs when they heard Summit had them.

On Sept. 24, Summit's Houston location was still helping the community by serving lunch to customers and employees to save them the time and expense of trying to find a place to eat since many restaurants were closed.

What Your Customers will Need for that Next Storm

  • Portable generators
  • Gas cans
  • Ice
  • Water
  • Flashlights
  • Batteries
  • Ice chests
  • Rain gear
  • Lanterns
  • Ground rods
  • Extension cords
  • Wiring devices
  • Service heads
  • Wire and cable
  • Rubber tape
  • Stringlights

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